by Henry Simpson
Lane first noticed the
coyote one morning on the back edge of his property. Lean, with a brownish coat
and upright ears, it might have been a dog, but moved with the light, quick
steps of a predator. It paused once in crossing, yellow eyes staring at Lane;
intelligent, wary, fearless. A moment later, it disappeared into the
underbrush. Lane was sorry to see it go, a wild creature in his neighborhood on
the outskirts of Ojai. He lived in a weathered 1950 house on five acres of what
had once been an orchard. The rest of the land had been sold off to developers
who filled it with oversized tract houses on small lots. Lane’s place sat on
the eastern edge, adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest. It was a small
oasis in an ever-encroaching urban landscape.
The coyote returned each
morning so promptly that Lane wondered if it had an innate sense of time or
tracked the sunrise. He sat in a ruined Adirondack chair and followed its
progress and halt, again those sharp eyes, staring, longer this time than the
day before, and it seemed closer, too. And every morning after that for a week,
he was out there waiting as it made its journey, each time closer, its staring
It was alone, and so was
he, his wife in the ground, gone six years now, and his daughter away at
university in Mexico City. He enjoyed the coyote’s company, however brief and
remote. One morning, the coyote did not come, and he wondered what had happened
to it. A cat had gone missing recently, predation possible, and neighbors had
guns. He waited each morning for it, but it never came, and he lost hope.
He had not been sleeping
well. Beside his loneliness, he had not held a regular job for three years.
Before that, he had been in the Army and then a criminal investigator with the
Federal Police. He would have stayed on with the Federales but was forced into
early retirement. His love life was nil. He had something going for a while,
but it went south with his career. He wondered if he was having a midlife
crisis, laughed, rejected the notion. At forty-nine, it was late and unseemly.
He had been in downers before, always pulled out of them on his own. He did not
believe in counseling, drugs, heavy drinking, risky behavior, religion, or
golf. Time usually fixed his disposition.
What differed this time
was unemployment. The thought of how many of his Army peers had died a few
years after retirement was unsettling. He needed to get busy. He had sent out
many resumes, been offered and rejected jobs as a rent-a-cop, bail bondsman,
repo man, insurance agent, prison guard, and instructor in a private military
school for wayward youths. He was too old to start over as a sheriff’s deputy
or cop. He considered becoming a private investigator but was not sure he had
the entrepreneurial wherewithal to handle such independent work after all the
years working for Big Uncle. Tired of waiting for a good job offer, he settled
for a part-timer delivering pizzas at night. It did not pay well, but it was a
way to stay busy and meet people.
His routine day consisted
of waking in the morning, searching for the coyote that had ceased appearing,
an hour of exercise, trolling the Internet for job prospects, mailing resumes,
following up on interviews and leads, and lunch. After lunch, a nap, working
around the house, reading, and then to work at 4 p.m. until midnight,
delivering pizzas in a yellow econocar fit for midgets. This routine, tedious
except for variations in the exercise pattern, was so relentlessly uninspiring
that Lane’s funk only deepened. Asleep in the early hours, he nightmared
existential events in his life: jumping with a faulty parachute to a
paratrooper’s death, drowning in the frigid waters of La Tempestad Island,
dodging sniper shots in Bosnia, seeing shadowy figures and hearing ghostly
voices while touring bunkers in Berlin.
What ended Lane’s string
of dreary days was a chance event one Saturday night as he was out delivering
pizzas. Fatigued from drudgery and lack of sleep, he was waiting at a stoplight
for the red to turn green. When it did, he goosed the accelerator, plunged into
the intersection, and suddenly became aware of bright lights illuminating the
inside of his coffin-like conveyance and the roar of a powerful V8 engine. The
collision blew the airbags and threw Lane right, forward, left, and back as the
econocar spun on its axis then crossed the intersection and stopped blam-bam at
the curb; Lane stunned. His next conscious perception was an ambulance ride
with siren blaring in the company of two alert young men in whites who were
smiling in overwatch, enjoying the excitement.
They delivered him to a
hospital emergency room and turned him over to a doc who examined him, sent him
for X-rays, and had him checked into the hospital for observation. Still dazed,
now sedated, his neck in a brace, he soon found himself alone, secured in a
crib-railed bed in a private room, hooked up to an IV and vitals monitors.
Through the open door, distant voices and footsteps of passersby periodically
disturbed the silence. Eyes shut, sleep.
Now he was in a hospital
ward, surrounded by bedridden men swathed in bandages, limbs suspended from
braces. He felt numb from morphine, his mouth dry, a bitter taste, the smell of
disinfectant and blood, the rustle of voices speaking German. Nearby, two men
were staring at him, talking softly, as if not to be overheard. The tall,
distinguished physician—white coat, steel-framed spectacles—stood at the foot of
his bed, checked the clipboard, shook his head at the male attendant, moved on.
Eyes open, he was back in
his single room in the darkness, with a splitting headache, remembering the
dream—the image, sounds, and other sensations were absolutely real, as was his
conviction it was 1944 and he was a German soldier like all the rest of them in
that ward, dying.
The hospital came back to
life at 6 a.m. An upbeat young nurse visited, checked his vitals and mood, and
advised him he was doing well, Dr. Cronin would soon drop by to see him.
An hour later, a lean,
fit, fortyish man in pressed whites entered his room and came to his bed. “Good
morning!” he said coolly, checking Lane’s chart. “I’m Dr. Cronin, the attending
neurologist. How’re you feeling, Mr. Lane?”
“Neck pain, and a
had a mild concussion, whiplash, and some facial trauma. X-rays show no
fractures. I want to keep a watch on you for a while to see if anything
develops. Stay here for a few days so I can monitor your condition, run an MRI
if necessary. Has anything like this happened to you before?”
the Army, twenty years, I got bounced around plenty. Injured once during a
parachute jump, broke my left arm in a fracas, a road accident on the Autobahn.
Nothing in the last few years.”
happened last night?”
truck hit me in an intersection.”
good you had airbags.”
nodded. “Do any hospital staff speak German?”
smiled. “That’s an odd question. Many speak Spanish. We have a few German
heard men speaking German last night.”
had a shock. Rattled your central processing unit, so to speak. This can have
unpredictable effects on people. Ever been in a German hospital?”
was stationed in Germany and spent two weeks at a former Wehrmacht hospital in
Baumholder recovering from a training accident.”
nodded. “Possibly you had a dream based on a memory of that experience.”
had not recalled the strange hospital stay for years. Nights, lying there, he
heard German voices, felt the presence of soldiers, had the conviction he died
do you do these days, Mr. Lane?”
you like it?”
not good for the health, physical or otherwise. Depressed?”
you a psychiatrist?”
Depression’s a treatable condition. I’m making an observation, not a diagnosis.
Consider yourself lucky to be where you are, with your faculties intact. You
could’ve broken your neck or cracked your skull, scrambled your brain, even
Dr. Cronin kept Lane in
the hospital two more nights. Satisfied he was doing well, he advised Lane to
take at least a week off from work, and released him. Lane taxied home, neck in
a brace, headache and whiplash discomfort. On the answering machine was a testy
message from Pizza HQ questioning his driving skill and judgment and whining
about the high cost of insurance, now sure to rise with another accident on the
company record. Pizzaboss had brought in a new deliveryman for the 4 p.m. to
midnight shift. Absent from the diatribe were words of encouragement for a
quick recovery, its tone conveying the message Pizza HQ did not expect his
return. The job, his thin link to society, was now toast.
His twenty-year old
daughter was studying Spanish language and culture for a year in Mexico. She
had almost fallen off the grid, her emails and phone calls rare. He missed her
painfully, hoped she had not fallen in love with a penniless Latin charmer or
involved herself in local political causes.
After a week home,
watching TV, bored out of his mind, he realized he was going to the dogs. In
the mirror, unkempt hair, beard stubble, bruises and dark rings around his
eyes, that ridiculous contraption still around his neck. To salvage dignity, he
removed the neck brace and hung it in the garage. While there, he noticed an
old chest of photos and mementos from happier days, carried it into the house,
sat on the couch, opened it up.
The best days were at the
bottom, Maggie, beautiful, young, dark-haired, blue eyes, a smile to end time.
He was there, often in uniform, as feckless as she about the future, in love,
entire lives ahead. Wedding photos, corny poses, happy guests. Traveling Europe
in a VW microbus. Army buddies, some
now dead in distant wars. Sifting upward through the pile, Kathy, their amazing
daughter, was born, in myriad baby photos, and then growing up, birthdays, long
forgotten playmates, school shots. A Labrador puppy, suddenly grown large, gone
after two years, struck by a car. Toward the top, eighteen years on, fewer
photos, after Maggie’s cancer diagnosis, she so frail, sallow complexion,
fading. Back in the USA, Army retirement, the move to Ojai close to her family,
and then she was no longer, no photos, no record of that last year, only a few
shots with Kathy. He held the last photo of Maggie, taken six years ago at a
barbecue in the backyard, seated in that ruined Adirondack chair, smiling at
the camera through her pain, holding a glass of red wine she never finished.
All the family gathered that Sunday afternoon, a week before she died.
wiped away indigent tears, put the photos back in the trunk, closed the lid. No
use going to pieces over history, good while it lasted, now gone. He put the
trunk back in the garage, hidden, no longer an invitation to nostalgia,
reached into a high cupboard and took down his Army Beretta nine millimeter,
ejected the clip to check it. Fully loaded, he shoved it back into the gun.
This Beretta was an old friend of nearly thirty years. He thought to put it
back in its hiding place, but for some reason unclear to him did not, took it
to the couch and set it on the coffee table, stared at it. It was late
afternoon now, getting dusk outside, the house silent except for refrigerator
hum. He closed his eyes, dozed.
she said. “Wake up, Ed.”
opened his eyes, aware of her sitting an arm’s length away from him on the
couch. He turned his head left, felt a shooting pain in his neck, saw her there
in white blouse and tan shorts—impossible—recoiled fearfully, unable to grasp
how she could be here now. “What!” he said, moving away. “Who are you? What are
your wife.” Her voice was Maggie’s, calm, soft, her exact intonation.
forced himself to look at her: she was as she had been twenty years before. He
could not take his eyes away. “How
can you be here?”
She stared at him, eyes
penetrating, holding him, shook her head. “I don’t know, I can’t explain.” She
reached out, touched his forearm, warm fingertips then palm against his arm.
He shivered at her touch
and inconceivable presence, pulled his arm away. “You’re not real. You can’t be
“But I am.”
“How can you be here?
Where have you been?”
“I don’t know. I can’t
explain. I was waiting for you, and then, suddenly, I’m here. Let me stay.
Don’t you want me to stay?”
“Why are you here?”
you need me now? You don’t look good, Ed, honey. You should take better care of
yourself.” She looked down.
followed her eyes to the gun, looked back at her. “How can you be my Maggie? My
Maggie is gone. You must be an impostor, or I’m dreaming.” But he immediately
knew he was not dreaming. Her presence was too real, vivid. He could see her,
feel her touch, even smell her perspiration and breath. “Where did we meet?”
Nuremberg, in a bar. I was waiting tables and you were with some Army friends
celebrating a promotion.”
did you give me your number? What did you say that night?”
smiled. “I said you looked like a young man who could use some lessons in
stood, walked to the back door, darkness outside.
leave me, Ed.”
walked through, took a deep breath, the cool night air, walked to the back of
his property, and then back and forth, not looking at the house. What was it in
there? Five minutes gone, he pulled himself together, looked back, through the
window to the couch where he had sat, now empty. Whatever it was, gone.
heard a coyote howling, way, way out there in the night.
did not visit him again during his recovery. He tried not to think about her
visitation, so implausible it challenged his sense of how existence worked. He
assumed it was an hallucination or waking dream brought on by his injury.
called at exactly the right moment, assured him she was well, studying hard,
not in love or pregnant.
visited Cronin weekly, checkups, no complications. After a month, Cronin shook
his hand, told him to go, no more appointments, drive carefully.
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story
collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His
most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).